Climate targets are the fallout from Japan’s nuclear disaster

Concerns over nuclear energy mean Japan is moving back to fossil fuels. EPA/TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA

Japan has announced it is significantly reducing its greenhouse gas reduction target. It now aims to achieve a 3.8% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 versus 2005 levels. The new target amounts to a 3.1% increase from 1990 levels, a sharp reversal from the 25% reduction target.

Hiroshi Minami, Japan’s chief negotiator at UN climate change talks in Warsaw, said that the nuclear shutdown has forced the country to lower its “ambition level” and that “the new target is based on zero nuclear power in the future.” The United Nations, European Union and the world’s small island states reacted with disappointment to Japan’s decision, while green nongovernmental groups voiced fury.

The previous, far more ambitious goal drawn up before the Fukushima disaster was based on the assumption that an increasing share of the nation’s electricity would be provided by nuclear power. Nuclear energy was an integral part of Japanese plans to achieve the emission reduction target of 25% by 2020. Nuclear power’s share of total power generation was to increase from 27% (in 2009) to 40% by 2017 and to 50% by 2030.

Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power reduced Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions by 14% per year. At the moment, none of Japan’s 50 viable commercial reactors are in operation. To fill the void, Japan’s utilities have switched to thermal power generation that increases carbon dioxide emissions since it relies on fossil fuels.

Due to the nuclear shutdown following the Fukushima disaster, I argued that increased emissions will make it virtually impossible for Japan to reach its Kyoto targets. Moreover, as early as January 2012, Japanese leaders had been frank in dismissing any hopes of meeting Japan’s climate change targets.

Consequently, the official change in Japan’s emissions targets is not a dramatic turnaround but simply an honest acknowledgement of Japan’s energy security predicament in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Nuclear shutdown in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has been a fundamental challenge to the principles that have underlined Japan’s energy policy since 2002.

In June 2002, the Japanese government created a systematic and comprehensive energy policy planning structure by adopting a Fundamental Law on Energy Policy Measures, also known as the Basic Act on Energy Policy (Law No. 71). The Basic Act established three general principles of Japan’s energy policy (the 3Es): energy security, economic efficiency and environmental sustainability. These three principles correspond to three major dimensions of energy security in the scholarly literature: availability, affordability and sustainability.

The Basic Act requires the government to formulate a basic plan to promote energy supply and demand measures on a long-term, comprehensive and systematic basis in line with the 3E principles. The government is tasked with reviewing the basic energy plan at least every three years and revising it as necessary in light of changing circumstances and the effectiveness of existing policies.

Three such Basic Energy Plans have been adopted by the Japanese government prior to the Fukushima disaster, in 2003, 2006 and 2010, respectively. All of these policy documents balanced the three principles. Nuclear power has been essential in these plans, and was perceived in Tokyo as the ideal power source in line with the 3E principles: (1) a domestic energy source; (2) a cheaper source of power than its fossil fuels competitors; and (3) crucial for reducing emissions and achieving Japan’s Kyoto targets.

The Fukushima disaster and the ensuing nuclear shutdown have challenged all three principles behind Japan’s energy policy. Without nuclear power, Japan’s energy self-sufficiency has dropped from approximately 15% to 4%. As a consequence of the nuclear shutdown, the value of Japan’s mineral fuel imports increased from ¥17.4 trillion in 2010 to ¥21.8 trillion in 2011 and ¥24.1 trillion in 2012. The 2011 and 2012 trade deficits stood at ¥2.56 trillion and ¥6.93 trillion, respectively. In both years, trade deficits were mainly caused by an increase in the value of fossil fuel imports.

Finally, in 2012, Japan’s emissions increased by 5.8% as the country imported and burned large amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal to compensate for the loss of electricity production from nuclear plants. Japan’s 2013 emissions are also likely to increase. With LNG demand lower in 2013 due to increasing costs, Japan has turned to coal, which is twice as emissions-intensive per unit of energy compared to natural gas.

It is expected that the Japanese government will revise the Basic Energy Plan by December 2013. Informed sources have indicated that nuclear power will feature in the revised plan on condition that its safety is secured. While unlikely to establish any numerical targets, the revised plan is certain to emphasise safety as an additional energy policy principle.

According to Industry Minister Motegi, revised numerical targets for Japan’s future energy mix will be released in three years’ time. This timeframe will allow for a proper appraisal of the status of renewable energy since the extended feed-in-tariff was passed in July 2011, and will provide some certainty regarding the number of nuclear reactors in service.

A general consensus among experts is that no more than 20 reactors will ever be restarted. So far five utilities have applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) for safety screenings to restart 14 nuclear reactors. Screenings for some reactors are expected to be completed in early 2014.

Referring to the new emissions target, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has noted that the 3.8% reduction has been set “just as a provisional figure”. Therefore, despite statements that the new target is based on zero nuclear power in the future, Abe’s statement and ongoing safety screenings indicate that Japan may be prepared to revise upward the reduction target, depending on the future reactivation of nuclear plants.

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